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What are you willing to die for? For Oscar Watkins, the answer led to service as a U.S. Marine – Index-Journal

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Cloudy with periods of rain. Thunder possible. Low 51F. Winds SW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 100%..
Cloudy with periods of rain. Thunder possible. Low 51F. Winds SW at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 100%.
Updated: November 11, 2021 @ 7:52 pm
Oscar Watkins attends a service at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.
Oscar Watkins served in the Marine Corps for four years. He said he moved to Greenwood from New York partly because of his experiences during basic training on Parris Island.
Oscar Watkins wears civvies — the military term for civilian clothes — at a special service at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.

Oscar Watkins attends a service at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.
Oscar Watkins served in the Marine Corps for four years. He said he moved to Greenwood from New York partly because of his experiences during basic training on Parris Island.
Oscar Watkins wears civvies — the military term for civilian clothes — at a special service at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood.
Once a Marine, always a Marine.
That’s not just a saying. As Oscar Watkins explains, anybody who wore the uniform still considers themselves a Marine.
Make no mistake, even after 40 years of civilian life, Watkins remains a Marine, despite admitting that his story isn’t as exciting as most, as he never saw combat.
“I’m like a baby blue Marine.”
During training at Parris Island, on South Carolina’s coast outside of Beaufort, he recalled a drill instructor asking “Why do you want to be a Marine?”
”I told him ‘when I would be old, I wanted to say I was a Marine.’ They loved that.”
Watkins served in the United States Marine Corps from 1977-81 for four years and three months.
Why the Marine Corps?
“I believe it was the advertisements,” he said. “‘We’re looking for a few good men,’ and ‘The few, the proud, the Marines.’ That sort of caught me.”
“I think a lot of people who join the Marines, it’s that pride, esprit de corps, the feeling that you are part of an an elite unit,” he said.
Before he could be part of that elite unit, he had to go through basic training at Parris Island. Drill instructors are not gentle. Watkins recalled getting his hair shaved off so he was bald when he walked through the gate. It meant nothing. They gave him a haircut like everyone else entering basic training, whether they needed it or not.
Then they turned on ice cold water showers. “I went in during April, so it was spring. It didn’t matter; it was terrible,” he said. Then there were swimming lessons and the tear gas room, ordeals that Marines are subjected to each year.
The Marines gave you a morning to learn how to swim. “I was like a rock. No matter what, everybody had to get to a 20-foot diving tower and jump in.”
He was nervous, but figured that the other guys wouldn’t want him to die. Guys who knew how to swim just laughed. To this day, Watkins said he still doesn’t know how to swim.
Watkins recalls everyone going in the tear gas room with a mask on. You had to take off the mask, say your name and where you were from, put the mask back on and clear it out. It was hot and the tear gas, he said, not only burned his lungs, it burned his skin. It’s not something anyone wants to go through, he said.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” he said. Grown men are crying. “You look back on it now and it’s funny.”
Watkins remembers learning how to throw hand grenades. “We were in a pit and one of thw recruits, he pulled the pin and he threw the grenade over the top of the pit, but it didn’t clear the top. One of the drill sergeants had to throw it out.”
Boot camp is a 13-week training session. But after you graduate, it seems like it wasn’t long enough, he said. “You actually miss it,” he said.
“When you’re on the parade ground, you’re proud. Drill sergeants who were once your worst enemy, they see you as one of the guys.”
Watkins said he came out with one stripe, as a private first class. After he got out, he attended a helicopter school in Millington, Tennessee, to train as a helicopter mechanic.
 After Millington, he was stationed in Santa Ana, California. He arrived in 1978. Then he was deployed to Okinawa, Japan. “I liked it so much, I reenlisted to go back.”
Part of the attraction was stereo equipment was very cheap. When he was in Okinawa, the currency ratio was 215 yen to $1. Money had more bang for the buck, Watkins said. He got a component stereo system, a Sansui receiver, a Teac tape player, Pioneer speakers and a Panasonic turntable.
Another attraction for him was that Okinawans were very friendly to American military personnel. As time went on, however, people started to resent the fact that a military base was there.
Even as a “baby blue Marine,” Watkins’ pride in his service overflows.
Watkins referenced Patrick Henry’s statement at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
“At some point in your life, you have to ask yourself, ‘What are you willing to die for?’ For me, the freedoms in this country are what I am willing to die for.”
Watkins ended his Marine Corps service as a sergeant. There are times he wishes he had made a career out of it. After he left, there were so many different engagements, he’s not sure he would still be here.
“I do think I did the right thing. I got in and got out in one piece,” he said. “It was probably the best four years of my life, as I look back.”
When he got out, he went back to New York and got a job as computer operator, then worked for an insurance company for 14 years.
“Then one day, I came in and they said, ‘your position has been eliminated,'” he said. They could save money by sending jobs overseas.
“I thought it was the worst day of my life, having to go home to my family. In fact, it was the best thing that happened to me because I was forced to work for myself.”
“It sounds crazy, but I sold toys,” he said. He would buy merchandise at a wholesale discount and sell retail. His products were little pullback cars, taxicabs, police cars, school buses and dump trucks. After the 9/11 attacks, he added stealth bombers and F-4 Phantoms.
“My best customers were grandparents. Parents don’t really spoil kids, but grandparents — whatever the kids want,” Watkins said.
The thing about working for yourself is that every day is pay day. One drawback is discipline; you have to save.
When he retired, Watkins recalled his experiences at Parris Island and opted to relocate to Greenwood.
“I just like the South. People here are so friendly and there’s a great deal of respect, especially in Greenwood, for veterans. It’s not like that in most places.”
He recalled returning Vietnam vets being treated badly. “They were called baby killers. Here, I’m treated with respect,” he said.
Watkins wore a U.S. Marine Corps hat during the interview for this story. A woman walking by stopped to say “Thank you for your service.”
In retirement, Watkins keeps busy. He is involved the ministry at First Presbyterian Church and spoke regularly at the Halfway House until COVID-19 struck.
He expressed concern about how society is dealing with life and the pandemic.
“For a long time, there wasn’t much socializing,” he said, noting increasing crime rates. “Now there’s conflict and strife. We’re going to have to learn how to live together.”
“As much as we try to plan things and as much as we think that we’re on the right path, I believe that our lives are already arranged for us,” he said. “We have freedom of choice, but there is a plan for everybody; everyone has a purpose and a reason to exist. We just have to find that path.
“I think the first thing is to realize that there is a higher power than yourself. I believe in faith, in a Creator. Faith in God will allow you to find the right path. You have to have faith; you have to believe.”
Contact staff writer Robert Jordan at 864-943-5650.
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